General InfoTexas' second highest mountain is found in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In fact, this remote piece of public land is home to eight of the ten highest peaks in the Lone Star State! An ancient fossilized coral reef, the Guadalupes were uplifted revealing large deposits of gypsum, limestone, calcite and obviously fossils. The porous stone allows water to percolate easily into the bedrock, creating an immense cave system beneath the range; several miles to the north, Carlsbad Caverns National Park showcases this same geology.
Hikes in the Guadalupe range entail very dry and often windy conditions. A gallon of water per person per day is a good rule of thumb, but on a hot summer or fall day, even this may not be enough. Based on the higher elevations, these mountains provide habitat for black bear, mountain lion and many trees, such as Ponderosa Pine, that are usually found hundreds of miles to the north. This "sky island" is a remnant of times when Texas maintained a much cooler climate.
BackgroundOn the first official day of Autumn, my dad and I had decided to do a "bit" of hiking in West Texas. The Nature Conservancy, which owns the highest peaks of the Davis Mountains, has several open access dates for individuals to hike and camp in the preserve. Our initial objective was to climb Mt. Livermore, however, we would be getting out in the area the day before the preserve was scheduled to open. As a "warm-up", I suggested that we go for a dayhike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to sample some of the other high peaks of Texas. El Capitan, Hunter Peak and Mt. Pratt were all options, but as we were looking over the map, we identified the second highest mountain in the state, Bush Mountain, as a good objective. By taking the Tejas Trail up to the Bush Mountain Trail, the day would be a long one at 13 miles and 3800 vertical feet. On the way back down, we would also have the option of a short jaunt up Hunter Peak.
As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men...
AscentAfter a pretty decent sleep (Car-camping), we rose about 2 hours before sun-up to eat breakfast, clean up and get ready for the day's hike. After an hour-and-a- half, the horizon was light enough for my dad and I to start our journey without headlamps. The sunrise was beautiful. I started out at a virtual run to get high enough to take alpenglow pictures of Pine Spring Canyon. Dad caught up in just a few minutes, and for the rest of the day, we stuck more or less together.
We steadily gained elevation along the Tejas Trail and after a short-time, the limetone Fin came into view with its natural rock arch. It seemed like as good a time as any to break for some food, so my dad took his pack off and got out a snack as I went up the hill to get a closer look at the Fin. Looking ESE through the window, I could see the early morning rays of sunlight falling beautifully on Hunter Peak. Then, some movement caught my eye toward the Devil's Hall. Barely visible against the hillside, I saw a large herd (~17) of brown mountain sheep hastily running away from these intruders. I motioned to my Dad to look down, but we were too far apart for him to understand what I was doing. I hurried back down to the saddle and had my own snack while telling him about the sheep.
After pulling our packs back on, we started hiking on the shaded side of the canyon, which was extraordinarily comfortable. The route began to switch-back noticeably up the slope as we progressed. Again, in what seemed to be a very short amount of time, Dad and I made it to the next trail segment as we entered the trees along the ridgeline. There was some discussion about making the 600' climb up to Hunter Peak, but we decided to save that for later.
I should mention that up until this point, I had been drinking Fort Worth water that I already had in my bottles. Having burned through all of that, I turned to the H2O from the Pine Springs trailhead. To be kind, I could say that the water was very heavily chlorinated, but not pulling punches, I could say that it tasted like ... ahem ... well, at any rate, it tasted terrible. Since the temperature was already pushing 90F, I kept pounding the water, but with each drink I kept feeling sicker and sicker to my stomach. The only thing that brought relief was to stop drinking, a very difficult proposition in the Texas sun on a shade-free ridgeline! Not wanting to give up, we kept pushing on as we followed the ridge to the second highest summit in Texas.
The miles passed by as we climbed up and down several hills on the barren ridge. Slowly, the Salt Flats came into view past the dramatic Western Escarpment and we could begin to taste the success of approaching our goal. Turning North along the ridge connecting five of the state's 8000' peaks, we had only a few hundred vertical feet to go before reaching Bush Mountain's forested summit.
The heat of the day was definitely in full force as we plodded up the final off-trail section. Really "plodded" isn't a good word as my dad and I were walking very carefully to make sure that we didn't have a run-in with one of the many rattlesnakes that call Guadalupe Mountains National Park home. Passing by a small repeater tower that definitely fit in with the wilderness nature of the park, we gingerly made our way up to the somewhat unimpressive summit of Bush Mountain. The trees provided us with some much welcomed shade while we rested and took pictures. I walked a few hundred feet to the west to look off the edge of the Western Escarpment to the salt flats, some 5000' below.
The view from such a precipitous perch was amazing! I got as close as I dared to the edge to take a few self-portraits before my dad came over and obliged me. It was amazing to realize that this sheer drop was the site of the original Guadalupe Uplift which exposed this wonderful and wild landscape. I must definitely say that God did quite a good job in building these mountains!
DescentWe milled about the summit a bit longer, but noting our dwindling water-supply and wanting to be back to the car well before dark, Dad & I started off back along the trail home. I normally would say that we started down the trail, however, there was enough uphill on the return hike to be noticeable, especially considering how hot it was. Though we wouldn't realize it until our return (I didn't have the heart to check my thermometer), it was 95F along the trail in Pine Spring Canyon without even the slightest breath of wind. The three main bumps along the ridge were passed relatively quickly, and after some 50 minutes, my dad arrived first at the Tejas Trail junction followed shortly by yours-truly.
We took another break to rest for the anticipated easy hike down the canyon, and after ~ 20 minutes started down the sunny limestone switchbacks. By this point, both Dad and I were out of Fort Worth water, and whenever either of us took a drink of the sludge we had gotten at the TH, we would feel sick to our stomachs. For better or worse, I took the approach of pounding as much water as I could stand to gulp and then waiting until my body decided to get rid of it. I kept munching on some snacks to kill some of the taste, but there was never more than 30 minutes after drinking the terrible brew before I'd have to yak. My dad took the less colorful approach of simply not drinking the bad water.
We moved down the trail through the now searing heat for about 30 minutes before reaching a few small trees just off the trail. Since these provided the only shade we had seen since leaving the ridge, we dropped our packs again to take what would turn into our last break. Sitting in the moderately comfortable shade, Dad & I decided that we would make for the trailhead in one final push. Both of us were moving much slower than expected due to the water situation, so we agreed to go at our own paces trying to stay within sight distance of each other. Given my digestional pyrotechnics, I figured that Dad would beat me to the TH, though, I simply put my head down and resolved to keep up a good pace.
Starting out again, I was allowed to take the lead for the remaining distance on the trail. With reckless abandon for the future health of my knees, I basically plunge-stepped down the hard trail since it was much easier than allowing my dehydrated quads the chance to cramp up. They were desperately trying to sieze up whenever they could. For whatever reason, my dad decided that he actually likes his knees and took a much more controlled descent approach, putting me about one switchback ahead by the time we got to the saddle just below the Fin. I waved to him to make sure that we both saw each other (Safety first!) before I went onto the south side of the ridge.
The remainder of the trip was spent without the further "benefit" of water, though my speed definitely seemed to decrease after I drank the last quart. I kept glancing over my shoulder to maintain contact with my dad, though I could tell that dehydration was affecting him as well. The sun was still up, though the shadows had gotten longer as I descended into the high scrub of the lower canyon. At this point, the foliage prevented me from seeing my dad any longer. Resolving to get the cooler of delicious, nutritious and non-sickening Fort Worth water in the car, I simply trudged down the last stretches of sandy trail.
Imagine my happiness upon passing the Guadalupe Peak Horse Trail just a few hundred feet away from the car, and further imagine my elation when I saw the Powerade vending machine beside the bathrooms! I hastily dropped my pack in the back-end of the van and literally ran over to the machine. At $1.50 a pop, I would normally be reluctant, however on this occasion, I was content to have a cold energy drink that would not make me sick to my stomach. After buying and gulping one, I went door to door at the nearby RVs to get change from my $20; by the time my dad emerged from the trail (5-10 minutes later), I had enough cold drinks ready for us each to have four. I must admit, however, that I drank a second one before he got back, leaving a total of six.
Lessons LearnedWe both leisurely stowed our gear and still had time to make it up to Carlsbad, NM before sunset. As we reflected back on the day's successful hike, three lessons could be easliy gleaned from the experience:
1) The water at GUMO's Pine Springs TH stinks, both literally and figuratively. Next time we will bring our own H2O from elsewhere.
2) Its hot in Texas! Just becasue its the first day of Fall doesn't mean that things get that much better.
3) Texas is hands-down the best and most-beautiful place on Earth! Would you expect any less of a statement from someone called the TXMountaineer? ;-)